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Civil servants

Government's plans to review the Civil Service for the first time in more than a decade is welcome news.

There's much to commend in the Civil Service and its traditional values, especially its apolitical position and the expertise that the best civil servants bring to their fields. The best civil servants are in the profession out of a genuine desire to serve the community and the public good. In doing so they often give up some financial gains that they might enjoy if they opted for careers in the private sector.

That does not mean it's perfect. There are many who view the Civil Service, in Bermuda and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, as overly bureaucratic. At its best, this acts as a check against rash policy decisions and legal changes. At its worst, it makes it sclerotic, a barrier to progress and an upholder of the status quo.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that when New Labour took power in 1996, the party's general assumption was that British Civil Service was pro-Conservative. But he said he soon realised that it wasn't pro-any political party at all, but rather generally resistant to political change of any kind.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton once described policy change in the US government as being akin to making an oil tanker change course it happens very slowly.

The other view is that the Civil Service is a tool of its political masters and fails to uphold the good of the country while pursuing narrow political goals, or simply does what it's told out of fear.

For every Minister expressing frustration with the inability of their staffs to execute a simple policy, there's a civil servant who will describe how they have prevented their political master from pursuing his or her latest totally impractical idea.

And many civil servants will argue that all that is needed for civil servants to do their jobs is for the Ministers to get out of the way.

Like all cliches, these different characterisations are both unfair and carry a germ of truth. The truth in all of this lies somewhere in the middle.

There are dedicated and hardworking civil servants and there are lazy civil servants. There are Ministers who interfere and cause more harm than good, and there are Ministers who are highly effective because they inspire and manage their staffs well.

However, there have been reports of genuine political interference, where Ministers have demanded that civil servants take actions that are outside of General Orders the civil servant's bible or Financial Instructions which guides how money should be spent. Regardless of the motivation, this is dangerous.

So the upcoming review should have two major goals. The first is to determine how the Civil Service can execute the policies decided on by the government of the day in as efficient and effective manner as possible while providing the best value for money to the public.

The second is to ensure that in doing so, that the independence of the civil service is preserved and that public servants are not asked or ordered to do things that they know are wrong or illegal.

There is a third goal, and that has been referred to only obliquely. Government has expanded quite rapidly in the last five or six years, and some 40 percent of its annual spending goes on personnel costs.

Government's unwillingness to make staff redundant in the recession is understandable, but if a consultant finds areas where the Civil Service should be reduced, this should not be ducked.

In the end, the report should outline how Bermuda can have a civil service that can take policy decisions and execute them, and oversee the administration of Government effectively while giving full value for money.

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Published December 23, 2010 at 1:00 am (Updated December 23, 2010 at 8:57 am)

Civil servants

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